Hook and Crook [HOOK & BUGSY]

From the Chicago Reader (December 20, 1991). — J.R.

HOOK

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Jim V. Hart, Malia Scotch Marmo, and Nick Castle

With Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Bob Hoskins, Maggie Smith, Caroline Goodall, and Charlie Korsmo.

BUGSY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Barry Levinson

Written by James Toback

With Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley, Elliott Gould, Joe Mantegna, and Bebe Neuwirth.

Wistful self-portraits of their respective stars — Steven Spielberg and Warren Beatty, two aging boy wonders lusting after the old magic — Hook and Bugsy are also lengthy meditations on investments, financial as well as spiritual. Coincidentally both projects were conceived seven years ago and have been gestating ever since: Spielberg started planning a straight version of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in 1984, then decided to concoct an updated sequel set in the present, and the same year Beatty commissioned James Toback to write an original screenplay about Bugsy Siegel, which started out as an epic about his entire life and was gradually whittled down to cover only the end of his life in the 1940s. Hook is contrived to move from gloom to joy, while Bugsy charts a slow downward spiral into melancholy; but both movies leave one with a sense of failed purposes — and of an obstinate will to believe that exceeds the meaning or logic of any actual belief.… Read more »

Young Einstein

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1989). — J.R.

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Postmodernism with a vengeance. This 1988 Australian comedy made some tidal waves on its home turf — perhaps because, like the subsequent and even more enjoyable Children of the Revolution, it offers a cheerful alternative to the usual Australian self-hatred. A distant cousin of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, it has the charm and advantage of a genuine visual style of its own, both laconic and witty, as well as a likably dopey plot and cast of characters. Directed, written, coproduced by, and starring Yahoo Serious, the movie follows the adventures of a teenage Tasmanian apple farmer named Albert Einstein, who splits the atom in order to produce a beer that contains bubbles, falls in love with Marie Curie (Odile le Clezio) and follows her to Paris, meets Charles Darwin, and invents rock ‘n’ roll in the process of draining off the atomic energy in a nuclear beer keg fashioned by the villain (John Howard). Invert the auteur’s name and you get a partial notion of what he’s up to — which is not exactly serious in its own right, but is at least serious from a yahoo standpoint. 90 min.… Read more »

Place and Displacement: Akerman and Documentary

Written for Chantal Akerman: Four Films, a DVD box set released by Icarus Films on March 29, 2016. — J.R.

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“When you try to show reality in cinema, most of the time it’s totally false. But when you show what’s going on in people’s minds that’s very cinematic.”

Chantal Akerman

 

If I had to describe the art of Chantal Akerman (1950-2015) in a single word, I think I’d opt for “composition”. This is a term that needs to be understood in its plastic as well as its musical meanings: a visual object that has to be framed in space, a musical object that has to be composed in time. And if we factor in the implied definitions offered above by Akerman regarding what’s reality and what’s cinematic, what’s going on in people’s minds and what’s going on in front of a camera and microphone, then we have to acknowledge that what she chooses to compose represents a kind of uneasy truce between all four elements (or five elements, if we regard sound and image as separate). How much she and we privilege mind over matter and cinema over reality — or vice versa — has a lot of bearing on what’s derived from the encounter.… Read more »

Well-Done Debut (PARENTS) & Sex and the Single Codger (THE LAST GOOD TIME)

Here, for a change, is a double header — reviews of two films I’m especially fond of, both by Bob Balaban, made and reviewed about six years apart, Parents and The Last Good Time.

From the Chicago Reader (April 7, 1989). — J.R.

PARENTS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Bob Balaban

Written by Christopher Hawthorne

With Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Bryan Madorsky, Sandy Dennis, Juno Mills-Cockell, Kathryn Grody, Deborah Rush, and Graham Jarvis.

Having already opened and speedily closed in both Los Angeles and New York, Parents arrives in Chicago under a bit of a cloud. Brilliant but uneven, this ambitious feature doesn’t have a script that’s worthy of its high-powered direction, doesn’t build as dramatically as it might have, and clearly bites off more than it can chew. But it is still the most interesting and exciting directorial debut that I have encountered in some time  – a “failure” that makes most recent successes seem like cold mush. Choosing a movie to take with me to a desert island, I would opt without a second’s hesitation for Parents over such relatively predictable Oscar-mongering exercises as Rain Man, The Accidental Tourist, or Dangerous Liaisons, because it’s a movie that kept me fascinated, guessing, and curious — even when it irritated me.… Read more »

SEDUCED AND ABANDONED Revisited

It’s been about 45 years since I last saw Pietro Germi’s Seduced and Abandoned (1964). I’m sure it already looked like a savage social satire when I was 21 or so, but one additional meaning it’s picked up in the interim is the devastating putdown it offers of The Godfather and its first sequel years before either one was made. (The second-best putdown—Coppola’s own The Godfather: Part III—would come much later.)

If memory serves, Germi’s earlier Divorce, Italian Style (1961) is funnier, largely because it’s less overflowing with bile than Seduced and Abandoned—and also no doubt because it has Mastroianni. But even so, I’m not at all surprised that Manny Farber would describe Divorce as an “unfunny farce”. What probably distinguishes Germi (1914-1974) most sharply from a Farber favorite like Preston Sturges (1898-1959) is the latter’s affection for even his dumbest and crassest characters, little of which Germi appears to permit himself. The hypocrisy of most of the small-town Sicilians in Seduced and Abandoned is too consistent and unvarying to allow for much indulgence, much less love or amusement. Even the title victim, played by Stefania Sandrelli, ultimately becomes a bit dehumanized by all the free-floating scorn, which eventually devolves into a kind of nightmare horror show, almost on the order of something like Rosemary’s Baby.… Read more »

The Actual Definitive Ultimate Director’s Cut (BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT)

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 2007). For all its inventiveness and resourcefulness, I find the recent sequel too long and difficult to follow, but I love the appearances of Harrison Ford/Deckard and his dog. — J.R.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut |****

Directed by Ridley Scott

It took 25 years, but the makers of Blade Runner finally got it right. Preceded by at least six editions, five of them seen by the general public, this “final cut” is the optimal form of Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece. Neither a complex revision nor a simple restoration, it’s a retooling that presents the project as it was originally conceived. Although some of the violence has been intensified and stretched out, new footage isn’t really the point. The focus instead is on redressing technical errors and making other helpful adjustments, giving the film a fully comprehensible narrative. For the first time every detail falls into place.

Along with the equally pessimistic and misanthropic A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Blade Runner sets the standard for movies about androids in the post-Metropolis era. It presents a dark view of humanity where the artificial beings known as replicants (who tragically have a lifespan of just four years) command most of our sympathy.… Read more »

DW Griffith: An American Life, by Richard Schickel

From Sight and Sound (Autumn 1984). –- J.R.

D.W. GRIFFITH: An American Life

by Richard Schickel

Pavilion, £15.00

Arriving on the heels of Donald Spoto’s Hitchcock and Richard Koszarski’s Stroheim, Richard Schickel’s massive biography of Griffith manages to steer a middle course between the compulsive narrative thrust of the former and the more scholarly negotiation of diverse hypotheses pursued by the latter. Grappling with a life and personality that surprisingly proves to be no less private and elusive than Hitchcock’s, Schickel confidently leads the reader through over six hundred pages of text without ever resorting to Spoto’s questionable tactic of baiting one’s interest with the promise of scandalous revelations. And if his scholarship in certain areas raises more questions than Koszarski’s -– see the helpful remarks of Griffith scholar Tom Gunning in the June American Film, particularly about the Biograph period -– he can still be credited with plausibly ploughing his way through an avalanche of contradictory and incomplete data.

Schickel’s task is, of course, more formidable than Spoto’s or Koszarski’s, encompassing some seventy-odd years and nearly five hundred films. Earlier efforts by Barnet Bravermann and Seymour Stern to compose a Griffith biography never reached completion (although Schickel has relied heavily on Bravermann’s material).… Read more »

Recommended Reading: JACQUES TOURNEUR

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JACQUES TOURNEUR, edited by Fernando Ganzo, Locarno Festival/Cinémathèque Suisse/Capricci,224 pages, 23 Euros.

Published to accompany the Jacques Tourneur retrospective at the Locarno Festival last August, this collection has been issued in separate English and French editions; Capricci has kindly sent me a review copy of the former, and although I’ve only just started to dig into its contents, I’m looking forward to many pleasurable and profitable times with the rest. Apart from translating a few important texts from the past — extended interviews with Tourneur in Cahiers du Cinéma and Présence du Cinéma (both in 1966), an essay by Petr Král from Caméra/Stylo in 1986 — this book mainly consists of new essays, most of them translated from over a dozen French writers (including Pierre Rissient, Patrice Rollet, and Jean-François Rauger) and two Americans (Chris Fujiwara and Haden Guest). There are also many illustrations in this slightly oversized volume, My only complaint is with the layout that prints about two dozen pages of the text on a shade of dark grey that makes them extremely (and needlessly) difficult to read. If Marc Lafon, the book’s design person, was trying to approximate some notion of Tourneur as the poet of shadows, I’m afraid this effort was misguided, because all that comes out of this exercise is murkiness, not poetry.… Read more »

Some Vagaries of Promotion and Criticism

The third chapter of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000). The cover  below is that of the U.K. edition published by the Wallflower Press. To set the context, the book’s previous chapter is called “Some Vagaries of Distribution and Exhibition”. — J.R.

MOVIE WARS

 

A much more common and systematic method of obfuscating business practices in the film industry, especially in blurring the lines between journalism and publicity, is the movie junket. Here’s how it generally works: a studio at its own expense flies a number of journalists either to a location where a movie is being shot or to a large city where it is being previewed, puts the journalists up at fancy hotels, and then arranges a series of closely monitored interviews with the “talent” (most often the stars and the director). The journalists are then expected to go home and write puff pieces about the movies in question, run in newspapers and magazines as either reportage or as a classy form of “film criticism.” If these journalists don’t oblige — and sometimes obliging entails not only favorable coverage, but articles with particular emphases set by publicists, articles that screen out certain forbidden topics and hone in on certain others — then the studios won’t invite them back to future junkets.… Read more »

Some Vagaries of Distribution and Exhibition

Chapter Two of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000). The cover  below is that of the U.K. edition published by the Wallflower Press.  — J.R.

MOVIE WARS

How often are aesthetic agendas determined by business agendas? This question is not raised often enough.Terminology plays an important role here. For example, once upon a time, previews of new releases were called “sneak previews” because the titles of these pictures weren’t announced in advance. Most industry people continue to use the term, despite the fact that the titles are announced and even advertised, so that the original meaning gets obfuscated: the only thing “sneaky” is the fact that they’re called “sneak previews.”This is a relatively trivial example of how terminology alienates us from what goes on in the world of movies. A more significant example is how we use an extremely loaded term like “independent.” An independent filmmaker traditionally meant a filmmaker who worked independently, free from the pressures of the major studios. If you believe what the media say about independent films, then the mecca for independent filmmaking would be the Sundance Film Festival, an event where independent films and filmmakers congregate annually.… Read more »

Cleo From 5 To 7

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1997). I had a great time talking to Varda about this film at Chicago’s Music Box on October 14, 2015. — J.R.

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Agnes Varda’s 1961 New Wave feature — recounting two hours in the life of a French pop singer (Corinne Marchand) while she waits to learn from her doctor whether she’s terminally ill — is arguably her best work, rivaled only by her Vagabond (1985) and The Gleaners and I (2000). Beautifully shot and realized, this film offers an irreplaceable time capsule of Paris, and fans of Michel Legrand won’t want to miss the extended sequence in which he visits the heroine and rehearses with her. The film’s approximations of real time are exactly that — the total running time is 90 minutes — but innovative and thrilling nonetheless. Underrated when it came out and unjustly neglected since, it’s not only the major French New Wave film made by a woman, but a key work of that exciting period  — moving, lyrical, and mysterious. With Antoine Bourseiller. In French with subtitles. (JR)

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Precious Leftovers (THE GLEANERS AND I)

From the Chicago Reader (May 11, 2000). — J.R.

The Gleaners and I

Rating *** A must see

Directed and narrated by Agnes Varda.

Documentaries are a discipline that teaches modesty. — Agnes Varda, quoted in the press notes for The Gleaners and I

There’s a suggestive discrepancy between the French and English titles of this wonderful essay film completed by Agnes Varda last year. It’s a distinction that tells us something about the French sense of community and the Anglo-American sense of individuality — concepts that are virtually built into the two languages. Les glaneurs et la glaneuse can be roughly translated as “the gleaners and the female gleaner,” with the plural noun masculine only in the sense that all French nouns are either masculine or feminine. The Gleaners and I sets up an implicit opposition between “people who glean” and the filmmaker, whereas Les glaneurs et la glaneuse links them, asserting that she’s one of them.

Gleaners gather up the leftovers of edible crops — grain, fruit, vegetables — after the harvesters are finished with their work. Varda la glaneuse films what other filmmakers have left behind after their harvesting. The link between the two activities is made graphic at one point when Varda gleans a potato with one hand while filming it with the other.… Read more »

FACES PLACES

 From the Chicago Reader (October 12, 2017). — J.R.

Faces Places

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In this French road movie, whose original title juxtaposes faces with villages, 89-year-old filmmaker Agnès Varda follows 33-year-old photographer and installation muralist JR across the countryside as he and his team photograph working people, enlarge these shots into monumental black-and-white likenesses, and paste them onto the sides of the buildings where the subjects live and work. From the opening-credit animation onward, this delightful, digressive, breezy collaboration, staged to look more spontaneous than it possibly could be, celebrates and enhances both artists, repeatedly finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and growing more reflective and melancholy only in its Swiss epilogue. For Varda, this is a spinoff of sorts to The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008); for me it’s a welcome introduction to the work of JR. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Good Vibrations (WAKING LIFE)

From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 2001). — J.R.

Waking Life

****

Directed and written by Richard Linklater.

The cinema is an antiuniverse where reality is born out of a sum of unrealities. –Jean Epstein

I must have come across this statement by Epstein, a French theorist and filmmaker (1897-1953), in the late 60s or early 70s, but I no longer remember where. I’ve scanned his writings on several occasions since, but I haven’t found the quote. Sometimes I wonder if I read or heard about it in a dream — making it one of the unrealities Epstein is referring to.

Wherever the quote comes from, it applies beautifully to the animated feature by Richard Linklater that premiered at Sundance early this year and is currently playing at the Music Box. The movie is a string of paradoxes and reflections about what’s real and what’s not, about when you’re dreaming and when you’re awake, and the unusual way it’s put together seems calculated to complicate all of the issues it raises rather than resolve any of them. Over 25 days Linklater, one of his coproducers, and a sound person shot a first version of everything we see in this movie with two relatively low-tech digital video cameras in and around Austin and in San Antonio and New York — basically taping a lot of people talking and walking, as well as listening and sitting.… Read more »

Heartbreak Motel [on TAPE]

From the Chicago Reader (November 16, 2001). — J.R.

Tape ***

Directed by Richard Linklater

Written by Stephen Belber

With Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman.

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It seems that the less we know about a subject, the likelier we are to be assertive about it. And journalists play a big role in making people feel knowledgeable about what they don’t know. That’s why we keep encountering more and more twaddle about the state of world cinema even though the growth of digital video makes it impossible for anyone to keep up with the state of local cinema in any large city, much less any country, still less the world. All journalists can honestly say is that more and more works are being made and that keeping up with them is no longer possible. It was only days after an Iranian friend and I completed a book about Abbas Kiarostami that a New York critic E-mailed us about two new Kiarostami works we hadn’t even heard of — a ten-minute short for an episodic feature and a fiction feature in DV that he’s in the final stages of editing.

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DV equipment is so easy to shoot with –it’s compact, light, inexpensive, unobtrusive — that it’s hard to keep up with how filmmakers are using the technology.… Read more »